Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Examining Kumari (my protagonist) with The Fire in Fiction

Warning: Giant Post Attack

I’ve been working through my The Fire in Fiction revisions – mostly adding microtension on every page and focusing on secondary emotions.

Part of all the secondary emotions is getting to the root of who Kumari is and the things I haven’t explored deeply enough, both in my head and on the page. (Some of this post will be spoilerish, so if that bothers anyone stop here!)

During the Fire in Fiction workshop, this was one of the first things we covered: decide what type of protag you have and determine the following:

  • Find your average joe’s strength
  • Find your hero’s humanity
  • Find your antihero’s promise of redemption

Then, make sure a hint at the evolution of your protag shows up in the first five pages.

I view Kumari as an antihero. Which means over the course of the story, she needs to encounter redemption of some kind. And that I need to ensure that she’s likeable despite her “darker” nature.

So what makes Kumari an “antihero” instead of a normal hero or an average joe?

  • She’s a skilled wrangler – an undead poacher. While there are many who try their hand at this profession, only a handful are successful. Out of the people that doesn’t die trying, most are just okay. A few are exceptional. At the start of the book, Kumari is okay and getting better. Thus, this profession moves her outside the “average” category. She faces the undead, she leaves the safety of cities to hunt them. Average people hide behind the barricades.

  • She has a chip on her shoulder and has a very dark way of thinking. Her personal motto is that “everyone should be able to choose how they die” – a two fold line of thinking. First, turning into an undead is the unthinkable fate and it would be better to die if you’re bitten instead of becoming a monster. (This is how her brother died, something she feels both angry and guilty about). Second is the idea of controlling your own life/fate/destiny. She hates the world and doesn’t think it’s worth saving. A good enough life is living without starving and dying without becoming an undead.

  • She doesn’t believe in the law system that’s in place (police officers of sorts called “gunners”). She believes they’re all corrupt – which is true in some cases. She rebels against their authority any chance she can find. Her father was a gunner who died because his colleagues ran away and left him behind during an attack. Her father held the line to save as many people as possible. As a result, Kumari hates all gunners unconditionally, never giving any of them a chance to show her what good can come from order in a chaotic world.

  • In all honesty, she’s a bit of a bitch, and trusts only a small group of people that are close to her. And anyone outside her group is nothing and, as far as she cares, already dead. For example, the only time Kumari helps defend a city is when the risk of a breach is so great that she and her company are in danger.

  • Overall: she hates the world, is disgusted that humanity has come to this, and doesn’t believe that the world is worth saving.

Next, what will be Kumari’s redemption? What does she need to change? What is really going on under this hard exterior?

  • Kumari cares, even though she tries not to: Her father was compassionate, and always tried to make the world a better place. He did this through defending the city and often helping people down on their luck by taking them in and helping them get on their feet. Her brother was also compassionate, but in a different way. Her brother made himself one of the greatest wranglers in the history of their city, and shared his extra winnings with the poor. Her brother’s fame also allowed him to help ensure fair treatment in the markets and price on trade. Though jaded by the loss of both her father and brother, Kumari can’t escape what’s in her blood. Despite having such a crappy outlook on life, she compulsively helps people, even though her mindset should tell her to walk away and leave them to die. In addition, she would do anything to keep her few friends safe and is the provider of her group.

  • Example: Vled, her trainee, was a slave she freed when he master was beating him to death in the street. Kumari killed Vled’s master on impulse, and then took in the boy because she’d left him with nothing and no where to go.

  • Example: Kumari is robbed in the middle of the city, but instead of killing the robber, she only shots him in the leg. She takes her water back (a very pricy thing in this world) and leaves the boy alone. Bastion (one of her group members) comments that if the robber had begged her for water, she’d have spared him some.

  • Example: Kumari strikes a risky gamble for Heaven, the child slave and prostitute of her hated rival Inimi. Despite the fact that taking Heaven away from Inimi would hurt him, Kumari is drawn in by the disgust for seeing a child treated in such a foul way - even though Kumari denies it later when Heaven wants to know why she bothered to save her. Overall, Inimi did play a bigger role in this decision.

  • Aberhiem, a character that comes in the second part of the novel, is someone Kumari is forced to trust because she needs help and is out of options. Just when she starts to warm up to him, she finds out he is a gunner. When the dust settles, she accepts him for who he is, showing some growth as a result.

  • When Heaven is kidnapped, Kumari risks everything to save her. Heaven accuses her of only coming to save her because she wants revenge on Inimi. When Kumari confronts Inimi, he calls her out – proving that the real reason Kumari came back was to save Heaven. Thus, the emphasis of the original interaction – Kumari saves Heaven because of Inimi and her own personal stake – are now reversed.

  • Overall: In the end, Kumari gives up her freedom – handing over her fate and control of her own life – to try and help find a vaccine for the undead infection. By the end of the novel, she’s given up on all of her own priorities in favor of helping the world she’d forsaken.

Now, how can I show this glimmer of change in the first five pages?

Originally, my first five pages start with a hunting scene to go with the action out of the gate concept. You get a bit of insight from Kumari, mostly about she’s awesome at kicking zombie butt – unlike in the past when it used to be tough. On about page six or seven, she and Bastion are on the way back into town and they have a chat about how Kumari has pushed too hard and will have to use extra rations of water. The glimmer of redemption comes when Kumari argues that she’s no different from anyone else, even if she’s the wrangler, and shouldn’t get extra water. So, it's close to where it should be, but is it too little too late?

I was trying to decide how I could do better, and a critique buddy made a great suggestion. The scene with the robber (mentioned above) happens in chapter 2. In reality, there’s not reason why that interaction can’t happen before they leave to go zombie hunting. Then, I still have the action hook in the first chapter AND I get deeper insight to Kumari’s antihero nature and future evolution within the Maass recommended first five pages.

And there you have it! Applying The Fire and Fiction to Kumari – what kind of character my main character is and how I can show hints of her evolution in the first five pages of my manuscript.


Davin Malasarn said...

Hmmm..this is really interesting stuff, Erin. I don't know a bunch of this, so it's very educational. I'd call the protag of my novel Rooster an anti-hero as well. And, in my early drafts, much of what I was criticized for is that he doesn't change ENOUGH for people to like him by the end. Much of my revision effort has gone into making that change more dramatic. And, maybe I need to work on that glimmer of change in the first few pages, like you mention.

scott g.f.bailey said...

Fascinating stuff you're doing over here, Erin. I always like to see writers thinking deeply about character and examining the story instead of, like, sitting around and saying, "My book's kind of slow here. Hmmm. What would make it better? I know: kittens! Kittens with wings! Yay, creativity!"

HOUND is going to be super cool when you're done.

The Screaming Guppy said...


What really hit home for me in Maass’ lecture was the idea that you can’t wait until the end of the book for an antihero to become likable. There as to be something about them that makes it worth hanging out with them for 300 pages – something to make you interested enough to share in their suffering, as it were. The example he used was how people avoid the person at the party who is always complaining – unless that person has something great to offer aside from their complaining, something that makes you invested in them personally, therefore, willing to suffer with them because you know it will be worth.

I think that’s why there’s such a push to tap into that coming evolution on the first five pages. Maass also said that the top two reasons he rejects manuscripts is because the main character isn’t likeable enough in the early pages and that there isn’t enough tension per page throughout the manuscript as a whole.


Can I have flying zombie kittens? I was totally going to put them in my book during this revision!!!!

It all seriousness, I get what you mean. I feel like reexamining things like this will make a huge difference on the coming draft. It feels much more significant that zombie flying kittens.